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“Her skin does not reject the light.”

That was impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir’s answer when asked why he used one favorite model so many times.  And it describes the luminous beauty of Marilyn Monroe, who almost half a century since her death still stands as the ultimate screen goddess.  “I have an Aunt Minnie back in Vienna who would show up on time and know her lines, but who would pay to see my Aunt Minnie?”  That was what director Billy Wilder said to Monroe’s frustrated co-stars in “Some Like It Hot,” when he told them that they had to be perfect in every take because he was going to use whichever one happened to capture her getting it right. That was Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, the daughter of a mentally unstable woman, raised in foster homes, married for the first time at age 16, later an international superstar, married to the biggest athlete in the country (baseball hero Joe DiMaggio) and then to one of the most distinguished literary figures in the world (playwright Arthur Miller), and dead by an overdose of pills at age 36.

Shortly after she married Miller, Monroe went to England to make a film called “The Prince and the Showgirl” with Sir Laurence Olivier, who also directed.  She was not only the movie’s star; in an effort to demonstrate her ability and depth she had formed her own production company and was studying method acting with Lee Strasberg.  Colin Clark, who was third assistant director (a gofer) on the film, wrote not one but two memoirs of his experience, including The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set With Marilyn and Olivier, which inspired this film, with Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier.

Even the radiant Williams will never be able to match Monroe as a screen presence.  But her performance is thoughtful, nuanced, complex, and magnetically compelling, like Monroe herself.  While it is the slightest of stories — an inexperienced and insecure young man is dazzled by Monroe who briefly makes him think he can rescue her — it is an improvement over the typical biopic.  Williams captures Monroe’s mercurial, even prismatic nature, her strength and her vulnerability, and especially her understanding of her own appeal.  “Should I be her?” she asks almost mischievously, with a sense of fun in being able to demonstrate how Norma Jean can turn herself into Marilyn and back again.  But her reasons for letting a young gofer “accidentally” see her naked are more complicated.  She is under enormous pressure and desperate for the kind of respect no one is willing to give her.  Her third marriage is falling apart.  She has a pattern of asking men to save her and then testing them beyond their ability.  Like Rita Hayworth, who famously said that men went to bed with Gilda (her sultriest role) and woke up with her, Monroe is the victim of a kind of Catch-22.  She wants to be loved for herself but has spent too many years being “her” and is not willing to risk being less effective.  When she says (while skinny-dipping with Clark) that men in Hollywood are so old, it conveys a great deal about the price she paid for her absent father and need for fame.

Monroe had more than met the eye.  This movie has less, but what it does have is highly watchable for Williams’ performance and a juicy turn by Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike and for, I hope, inspiring watchers to return to the original, Monroe herself.

 

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and non-explicit situation, non-explicit nudity, some strong language, drinking, smoking, and drug use.

Family discussion: What did Marilyn mean when she asked whether she should “be her?”  Who understood Marilyn better, Colin, Milton Greene, or Dame Sybil Thorndike?  What do we learn from Vivian Leigh’s conversation with Marilyn?

If you like this, try: the films of Marilyn Monroe including “Some Like it Hot,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and “Bus Stop” and Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son”

 

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